The Skinny on Sugar Substitutes

For my September 7 article about the good, the bad, and the ugly of sugar substitutes, The Skinny on Sugar Substitutes, either click here or keep on readin’!

 

Nutritionists, dieticians, meal planners, personal trainers and weight-loss coaches tend to disagree on pretty well everything. Big or small, tiny detail or entire calorie-burning paradigm, we can’t seem to agree on much. We’ll quibble about quinoa and bicker about baked goods, fight about fat and carry on about carbs. There is one thing, though, on which we can all agree.

Too much sugar is bad news.

It’ll wreak havoc on your waistline. It’ll spike your blood sugar, making your energy levels as unpredictable as the September forecast. It’ll make you hungry again in a flash, and worst of all, it’ll make you crave sugar again.

But it’s also delicious and satisfying and very, very hard to give up.

There are great ways around this problem, though. Aside from eating loads of fresh fruits (which naturally satisfies your sweet tooth), grocery stores are full of “faux-sugar.” These sugar substitutes have reduced (or nonexistent) calorie content, and all claim to seamlessly replace sugar in your baked goods, your drinks and your sauces. “You’ll never know the difference!” is exclaimed by each and every manufacturer. But which one to pick, and when? I’ll discuss five of the most common sugar substitutes, and tell you when they’re good, they’re bad, and they’re ugly.

Splenda

A sucalose-based sweetener, Splenda has been in production since 1998 and is available in both granulated and tablet form. Far tastier than many other artificial sweeteners on the market, Splenda has encountered enormous success since its launch. Many FDA studies have concluded that Splenda does not pose any significant health risks, and it is generally considered a safe alternative to sugar.

When it’s good: Nearly anywhere you’d use sugar. Because Splenda performs far better with high heat than other sweeteners (it’s heat soluble to 450 F), it does a great job replacing sugar in cakes, cookies, and brownies. Splenda also boasts a one-to-one ratio (meaning if your recipe calls for one cup of sugar, you’d replace it with one cup of Splenda), making it exceedingly user friendly. Not only limited to baked goods, Splenda also plays well with smoothies, cocktails, coffee, tea, soups, and smoothies.

When it’s not: I advise steering clear of the Splenda Brown Sugar blend. While I love regular Splenda, something got lost in translation with the attempt at brown sugar. In baked goods, it tastes artificial and chalky — not what you want in a brownie or cookie. As an alternative to this, use the regular Splenda blend, but add about a half-teaspoon of black strap molasses to whatever you’re making. Trust me, it’ll taste just like you used brown sugar. Also, Splenda, though incredibly useful in the kitchen, does not caramelize or brown like traditional cane sugar. Though it is heat soluble up to 450° F (making it an ideal sugar substitute for baking), it won’t create a lovely crust for your creme brulee. Finally, it will not activate yeast, so best to choose a different sweetener for bread products.

Molly’s Tip: Many are resistant to any sugar substitute. To satisfy even the pickiest sweet tooth without guilt, try using a half Splenda, half sugar blend in your next batch of cookies. The taste and texture will be remarkably the same, but with half the sugar content!

Sweet‘n Low

Sweet’n Low is one of the most recognizable brands of artificial sweetener — its name dates all the way back to an 1863 song by Sir Joseph Barnby. Though it is made from granulated saccharin in the United States, here in Canada the sweetener has been made from sodium cyclamate since the 1970s, when saccharin was found to cause cancer in lab rats. Each Sweet’n Low packet also contains dextrose and cream of tartar.

When it’s good: If you have an developed an acquired taste to it, or if there truly is no other option. Though the oh-so-common little pink packet takes up residence at nearly every diner or ‘greasy spoon’ across the country, Sweet‘n Low simply doesn’t taste very good.

When it’s not: According to my taste buds, pretty well all of the time. Chalky and artificial tasting, you’ll never mistake anything made with Sweet‘n Low for something made with real sugar. It doesn’t hold up under heat, making it a poor sugar substitute for baked goods.

Molly’s Tip: Steer Clear. Advances in research and artificial sweetener production mean that you no longer have to suffer through the taste of Sweet‘n Low.

Truvia

A stevia-based sweetener, Truvia is produced by Coca-Cola and Cargill. The new kid on the sugar-substitute block, Truvia has been met with much success since its 2008 launch, and has surpassed both Sweet’n Low and Equal in sales. Because Truvia is derived from the stevia plant, it is marketed as a more natural alternative to Splenda. It is also used as a sweetener in Vitamin Water, Crystal Light, and some Odwalla juices.

When it’s good: Truvia is a great tasting, zero calorie sugar substitute, and sweetens hot and cold beverages, salad dressings and sauces very well. You can safely bake with Truvia, though it doesn’t replace sugar in recipes with a one-to-one ratio. It produces great results; you just need to be very aware of the correct ratio when baking with it. Truvia has also never endured any health controversies; all scientific studies point to it as very safe for human consumption.

When it’s not: If you’re pinching your pennies. Truvia is without question the priciest of the bunch, so you may not want to use it with complete and utter abandon.

Molly’s Tip: Keep your eyes peeled for coupons and sales! Once in a blue moon, local grocery stores and/or health food stores will discount Truvia, making it cheaper for you to experiment with.

Agave Nectar

Agave nectar is produced from two different species of the agave plant, and most that is commercially available is a product of either Mexico or South Africa. Sweeter and thicker than honey, agave nectar is a favourite among health food enthusiasts as it is a naturally occurring product, and has a much lower glycemic index than cane sugar.

When it’s good: I love agave syrup to sweeten tea, cold drinks, oatmeal, and salad dressings. Agave nectar dissolves quite quickly, which makes it a handy beverage sweetener. As it is sweeter than either honey or sugar, a little goes a long way. Agave also functions as a great vegan alternative to honey.

When it’s not: If you’re diabetic, or are truly (and strictly) counting calories. Agave nectar is composed primarily of fructose and glucose, and is not calorie-free.

Molly’s Tip: Add a splash of agave syrup to any tea or coffee you’d like to sweeten. Its creamy taste and lovely consistency add a depth that compliments the flavours of these hot beverages instead of taking away from them.

Honey

Honey is a sweetener with which we’re nearly all familiar. Delicious on toast, in hot or cold beverages, in desserts, or to sweeten yogurt, many honeys contain antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals.

When it’s good: Honey is best when it is natural and local. Look for a farm stand or a booth at the farmers’ market; the Kingston area has many fantastic local producers. Different honeys vary remarkably in taste, depending on the flowers available to the bees during production. Experimenting can be quite enjoyable.

When it’s not: If you’re diabetic, vegan, or are really counting your calories. Honey is not calorie free and does contain sugar, and should be enjoyed in moderation.

Molly’s Tip: I prefer using honey to activate my bread yeast instead of plain sugar. It adds a lovely, somewhat more complex flavour, making even plain sandwich bread taste like something from a bakery!

Whatever sweetener you choose to use, know that many options exist outside of the world of sugar. Experiment and find exactly which sugar substitute sweetens your day perfectly.

Molly Daley is a nutritionist and runs the website Diary of a Formerly Fat Girl. Find her at www.DiaryofaFormerlyFatGirl.com, or follow her on Twitter, @DOAFFG

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